Last week, in a fit of childishness I had vetoed watching a proper movie with Katy and instead forced her to watch the ridiculous Rambo III on channel 5. ‘Look’ I giggled as things blew up in various configurations ‘Look at all the irony, it’s good because of all the irony it has’. What a twat I am. So when the movie choice discussion rolled round again, she swiftly (and justifiably) picked a movie I had loudly and repeatedly stated I would never watch. Enter The Babadook.
On paper The Babadook is the perfect storm of a film I should hate. It’s a haunted house movie, a sub genre I rank slightly below kitchenware infomercials and slightly above actual documentary footage of brutal CIA torture sessions in terms of watchability. It costars a child which is terrible because they are nearly always so bad at acting that you beg whatever monster or ghoulie is terrorising the homestead to FINISH THE JOB just to end the pain of watching their performance. Everyone involved is Australian, which means the script has a 90% chance of people standing near a beach barking ‘no worries’ at each other in the world’s most grating accent for two hours. Most worryingly of all it came with the highest recommendation from bizarro world easter island Morrissey statue Mark Kermode, a man whose opinions I agree with about as often as I self check my testicles for cancer, which is never because I am a coward. On the strength of all this, I sat down with my sneer-o-meter set to maximum, ready to complain all the way through it. Of course, as regular readers will know, I am always wrong about everything. The Babadook is one of the best horror films I have ever seen.
The film follows your standard haunted house template – bereaved mother and spooky kid with behavioral problems, a creaky victorian house with a suspicious lack of overhead lights and an ominous basement, a haunted children’s book (featuring the titular Babadook, a twist on the standard Bogeyman) etc. etc. So far so formulaic. But The Babadook, after setting up the usual tropes isn’t content to just throw in a few jump scares and a half baked 3 act sweep and call it a day (looking at you, Insidious 2). Instead the story twists and turns, lurching from family psychodrama (I will avoid my usualy hamfisted attempt at psychoanlysis as it has been done perfectly already), to We Need To Talk About Kevin spooky kid shenanigans, to something else entirely, and finally to something I don’t think I’ve ever seen in a film before. I usually don’t care about giving out spoilers, but here I think I will exercise some constraint, because the plot is so tightly constructed and in many ways novel, I wouldn’t like to ruin it for anyone. If you have ever sat watching a horror film shouting at the screen that if the character might stop pissing themselves for two seconds and actually think that they might be able to gain the upper hand, this film should leave you satisfied.
An important consideration for a horror film is is it actually scary. I’m pleased to report that it is, in fact, fucking terrifying. Not only that, but it’s terrifying on several different levels. From mother Amelia’s bereaved and drab life, to the nightmare of having a unmanageably difficult child, to being haunted by an unimaginable cosmic horror, to living in Adelaide – there are many kinds of horror, and The Babadook weaves them together into a smothering fabric of dread. There are times where the ‘ghost-train’ feeling of being scared gives way to a deeper, more emotionally grinding kind of misery that the film stops being fun and becomes difficult to watch. Whether this is a problem or not depends entirely on you. In any case, the film is successful in it’s mission to frighten, and manages that rare trick of giving a glimpse of the ‘horror behind the horror’ – that kernel of realness at the heart of all the silly monster stuff that sticks with you after the credits roll – When the film ended, it was time to make a cup of tea, we went to the kitchen together, neither of us keen to be left alone in the dark.
The film looks fine, with an oppressively drab colour palette (impressively achieved in camera and not in post production) suffusing the house in a washed out gloom. The two lead performances are very good – again I can’t say too much without giving away plot points – but both leads manage their varied roles with panache. The monster itself is more of a mixed bag. It is chilling in it’s appearance in the children’s book, less so in its real form. Director Jennifer Kent has spoken about the monster effects – a combination of stop motion and cgi smoothing – and her attempt to make something that looked real. I’m not sure she hits her mark here, but it doesn’t detract too much from the overall effect. The sound is somewhat anonymous – I can’t remember anything about it 24 hours later – but that is probably a sign that it is effective. Sound in a horror movie is there to maintain tension (and in lazy films, provide volume scares), leaving it with little room for big standout moments. The fact that the movie is scary is itself testament that the sound was well designed.
As I write this review I’m realising how hard (and rare!) it is to describe an actually good horror film, particularly without comparing it to bad ones. Trying to avoid spoilers is also hampering the effort, so perhaps it’s best left here with a simple recommendation: go and watch The Babadook (it’s still in certain cinemas as it has broken out and is making a late awards run). Take someone either extremely jaded and prone to sneering at horror films and shock them, or better yet take someone timid as a dormouse and mentally scar them for life. I’m off to root around in my scrotum for tumors.